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Raken CEO Kyle Slager On Why Culture Is King

For Kyle Slager, CEO and founder of reporting app developer Raken, company culture is king.

rakenFor Kyle Slager, CEO and founder of reporting app developer Raken, company culture is king. Early on, Slager and his initial hires began creating a set of guiding principals for the company that are still in place today and have contributed the organization’s success.

Slager decided to create Raken after recognizing that the construction industry lacked a reporting tech solution that could alleviate major pain points for workers both in the field and in the home office. Raken’s mobile app technology automatically creates professional, company-branded daily reports from data supplied in the field by superintendents and foremen.

Chief Executive caught up with Slager to talk about company culture at Raken, the challenges of starting a business from the ground up and the importance of developing relationships with outside investors as a startup CEO. Here’s what he had to say:

The importance of company culture

I think culture is everything. To create a business, there needs to be an opportunity. But those things are more so just like table stakes to have a business. So, the way we look at things is if you get the right people and the right culture, then anything is possible. And we realize, it wasn’t like day one I had these guiding principles for the second person I hired. It was more like I just spent a lot of time with them. We felt like we were on the same wavelength, looked at things a similar way.

And our first 10 hires, we all worked in one little office where we were shoulder-to-shoulder. And so, we didn’t really feel like we needed to establish guiding principles for our culture at that time. We all worked together, we all were kind of following the same principles. But then what happens is eventually you’re not going to have a 1,000% batting average, right? And there’s going to be people you hire along the way that aren’t necessarily good or bad, but you notice that something doesn’t fit.

And after we had a couple hires that we felt like just it didn’t fit our culture, then we kind of took a step back and said, “Okay, well what is our culture?” And it was a group effort those initial 10 employees all kind of contributed to what those things are.

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The first and foremost is be yourself. Because something I sometimes say to our team is “Your voice is different than anybody else in the world. So just imagine how unique your heart and your mind is when it comes to any challenge that we’re facing.” And so, we encourage everybody to bring that—bring what makes them unique, bring what makes them different.

Assume positive intent. This is something where it’s really hard to grow as an individual if when you’re getting feedback. You don’t assume positive intent from that person who’s providing that feedback. So that’s a really important one to support growth.

Do what you say, and say what you do, and be on time are about kind of accountability. My time’s not more important than somebody who just joined us a week ago. So, we kind of hold that across the board.

Display a bias for action. We noticed there were some decisions where we were just spending too much time. And it’s kind of like you can hem and haw forever on certain decisions, but the best thing to do at the end of the day is just have a bias for taking action. And if it isn’t the right path, taking action is going to show us that it’s not the right path and then we can change course.

Act with a sense of urgency. We don’t really take our time with things. When we decide on a direction we’re going, we move quickly.

No HiPPOs. That’s a highest paid person’s opinion. So, when we’re in meetings, the way we structure our company is in an inverted pyramid. So, if you could imagine, customers are at the top of that inverted pyramid. And then you have everybody on our team that interfaces with those customers is the next step down. And then you kind of have the product team and managers who are supporting the team that’s interfacing with the customers. And then you have senior staff which is supporting those people. And then myself who’s supporting the senior staff.

But it’s all geared towards supporting our customers at the top and the people within our company that support those people. And so, we feel like the people who are going to have the best ideas are going to be the people who spend the most time with our customers. And a lot of times those are early customer success roles and sales roles that are spending the most time with them. So, we make sure those people know that their opinion is just as much valued as the CEO.

No brilliant jerks is kind of a straightforward one. It’s kind of like you can be the smartest guy in the world, but if you don’t play well with the rest of the team it doesn’t work.

And then there’s only a few more here: Treat others with respect. We have a zero tolerance for gossip. Just like a family, there are issues that come up, and you’ve got to be comfortable in communicating those issues directly with the people you have the issue with.

Have fun. We celebrate a lot. We celebrate somebody overcoming a personal obstacle. We celebrate a team getting over a goal or the company hitting a target. We celebrate a lot.

And then you get what you give is the last one. Don’t expect to come in here and sit there and expect everybody’s just going to bring everything to you. You get what you put in.

So, we took the time, you know, after we had a couple misses where it’s like, “Huh, why didn’t they fit in the culture, right?” And when you read these things, you could say some of them, like no brilliant jerks, might seem straightforward or you could say is good versus bad. But a lot of these, it’s not necessarily good or bad.

There are other companies that take the opposite approach that are really successful, too. I mean, there’s places that are like, “We don’t care if you’re an asshole. If you’re really smart and you add value, then we’re great.” So, it’s not necessarily a right or wrong thing. It’s just this is kind of how we operate at this is who we are. And if you fit in this culture then great, and if not, that’s okay too but you just won’t stay here.

“the way we look at things is if you get the right people and the right culture, then anything is possible.” 

Starting a business from the ground up

At the starting point, I quickly realized that I could only get so far by myself. And so, then it just becomes about finding great people that you could envision working with the next 10 years. People that have a shared value, that have a similar kind of risk appetite.

Because at the end of the day, these are going to be people that most likely are leaving higher paying, more secure jobs, and a lot of them have families and kids, for something that’s a lot riskier, and they’re going to make less money, at least in the early days, right? When you’re still trying to prove out the business model and before you raise financing and everything else.

And so, in the early days at the same time that you’re selling to new customers, anytime you’re not doing that, you’re selling to potential new team members. And for me, it was like as the business grew and as we started to get more and more customers, for me it was constantly identifying where I need to fire myself.

When you start a company by yourself, you have to do everything. There’s nobody else to do anything, right? And then you start to identify what areas can I fire myself that provides the greatest value to the company. Is it you need somebody to get on the phone with customers in kind of a customer success role? Because you’re adding customers so fast and you need someone to help you with onboarding those because you can’t get to all of them. And so, for us that was it. That was kind of the first hire.

And then the second hire was, okay, the number of companies kind of coming to us and hearing about us keeps increasing. And so, I need somebody to get on the phone with them when they’re interested and they want to learn more about our product. So, that was kind of more of like a sales role.

Then we wanted to make the product more commercially scalable, so we brought in our first lead engineer. And so, it just kind of goes in a step-by-step process of what area can I fire myself that would provide the most leverage for the business, to grow and to kind of support that growth? And so, I was just constantly looking at that and then recruiting people for those specific roles. And we got lucky. Our first couple hires are people that are still here today and have been incredible since day one.

The importance of developing relationships with investors

I don’t think it’s obvious to a first-time entrepreneur how important that is in terms of building those relationships. And then really being highly, highly selective in terms of who you end up deciding to work with, and knowing that it could come from anywhere or any introduction and just being open to that. And I think an important thing that I did pretty early on is I decided that a certain percent of my time is not necessarily going to be spent on fundraising, but it’s going to be spent on getting to know the people and the firms that could potentially be the participants in the next financing for us.

And what’s great is that if you get great investors early on, which we were fortunate enough to do, then that usually leads to great introductions to the next set of investors. Because for us, we had just incredible seed investors who have such great relationships and great reputations up in Silicon Valley. And so, with the combination of that and our business doing really well, when I told them “Hey, most likely this is going to be the timing of our next financing.” We laid out a strategy of when we’re going to kick off initial conversations.

And then over the course of the next six months,  I’m focused on the business, but I’m also gradually getting to know a lot of the players that could be the next partner for our business. And the more you meet, I feel like the easier it is to kind of have a feel for the type of person that you do want to work with versus don’t want to work with.

So for us, I think it’s be very intentional as early as you can be in terms of the qualities you want that person to have, and then find a way to get introductions to those types of people. And just never settle on anything outside of the type of partner that you wanted.

And another thing we did is we went around past where you would see someone raise a typical round in terms of our growth. Because we want to build a big, sustainable company that’s around for a really, really long time and has a huge impact on this industry. We didn’t want to be a company that were just about at that point where it’s a stretch to raise the seed round, and we go out and raise a bunch of money, and then kind of set ourselves up to have to raise again a year from now, otherwise the business goes away. That’s how a lot of startup companies go, just from looking at the statistics of how many companies actually succeed and fail. And that’s how the majority of them go and they don’t succeed.

And so for us, we built a business that didn’t necessarily have to raise money, but allows us to raise money on our terms when we want to raise it, when we think it makes the most sense. And effectively it just helps us do the things that we were going to do anyways, it just helps us do them a little faster.

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